May 21, 2009
Cool and lithe - Cover story
Lean is in
Actors and models lead this embrace of thinness but the disconnect between the average Jane and the billboard model's elusive looks can cause much unhappiness
By June Cheong
From supermodel Kate Moss to pop diva Madonna, the taut, lithe look is what women now want.
More men, too, are turning away from the bulging sinews of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger preferring lean figures like Justin Timberlake and Rain instead.
'Men now want the athletic physique, well-defined muscles without being too muscular,' said Dr Andrew Tay, a consultant plastic surgeon at The Plastic Surgery Practice.
Plastic surgeon Colin Tham, the director of aesthetics at AHP Aesthetics & Plastic Surgery, added: 'Women now go for the athletic, lithe, toned build. It's a look which needs high maintenance.'
Trendsetters like actors and models lead this embrace of thinness.
Mr Watson Tan, director of UpFront Models & Production, noted that the average vital statistics of male models here is 38-30-38, down from 42-34-40 in 1990.
A report in the British Medical Journal in 2002 found that the bust and hip measurements of Playboy models from 1953 to 2001 had steadily gone down, resulting in contemporary models being less curvy and more androgynous.
However, while the ideal body shape for men and women is being downsized, the reality is that the average person on the street has grown larger.
The first UK National Sizing Survey in 2004 found that British women's waists had expanded by 16.5cm since 1951. Ditto for British men over the same period.
In Singapore, the National Health Survey 2004 conducted by the Ministry of Health found that obesity was not on the rise as the proportion of Singaporeans who were overweight had stayed constant.
That said, among Singapore residents between 18 and 69 years old, 32.5 per cent were overweight and 6.9 per cent were obese.
The disconnect between the average Jane and the billboard model's looks can lead to unhappy outcomes such as eating disorders.
Ms Constance Png, a clinical psychologist at Changi General Hospital, said: 'Seeing thin people in magazines and the mass media may make you think it's common and that's what's most attractive.'
She said that not everyone subscribes to the same ideal but if 'an important person in your life says a certain figure is ideal, you'd strive towards that'.
Possible consequences, in the pursuit of an ideal figure, may result in low self-esteem, unhappiness, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder or an addiction to plastic surgery.
Ms Evelyn Boon, a senior principal psychologist at the department of psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital, said: 'The idealised body is unrealistic. It is ever-changing in this fickle world and is attained in only 1 to 2 per cent of the population.
'Most of the time, the idealised body is not even real as most media images have been altered through lighting, make-up and Photoshop.'
Being constantly bombarded with images or notions of an ideal figure can also influence mate selection.
Dr Maryanne Fisher, an assistant professor at the department of psychology at St Mary's University in Nova Scotia, Canada, told Mind Your Body in a telephone interview: 'It changes what we expect of a mate. If we are constantly being told that a certain body shape, skin or hair colour is beautiful, we'll look at ourselves or our mate in the mirror and think 'That's not beautiful'.'
Dr Fisher has published several papers on evolutionary psychology.
'When I look for a mate, I have to be realistic and not expect someone off a magazine cover,' she said. 'The problem arises when you are not being realistic.'
Of course, seeing people with ideal figures need not always be negative.
Ms Nurjanna Ng, 25, a marketing coordinator, was able to stick to an exercise and diet regimen in her teens, thanks to pictures of bikini and lingerie models which she plastered her wardrobe with.
She said: 'When I was 16 or 17, I had models' pictures up in my clothes cabinet. Every morning I'd open it and see the pictures and I'd be motivated to go to the gym and not eat too much.'
Ms Png said: 'If you can attain the idealised figure, you do get a sense of well-being and feel worthy since that's a valued image.'
Curvy and full-figured women need not fret though. Dr Fisher sees the current idolisation of thinness as part of a shifting culture.
She said: 'If we go back to the Renaissance, women were much larger and more voluptuous. These ideals can shift over time.
'In resource-scarce countries, in order to show wealth, you'd be plump or voluptuous.
'In Canada and developed countries, the reverse seems to be happening. Being slender is ideal because you show you're wealthy by eating only the very best.'
Dr Tham added: 'There's now a culture of keeping fit, with so many more gyms and yoga centres around as compared to a few decades ago.'
Dr Tan Swee Kheng, 35, certainly subscribes to that culture. The kinesiologist and movement specialist who was featured in Mind Your Body's Fit & Fab last month cycles, swims and runs three times a week. She also participates in marathons.
'I set aside time and days for exercise even when I have a busy work schedule,' she said.
Meanwhile, the sleeker male physique - with narrow waist and broad shoulders - may be a return to the norm.
Ms Boon said: 'The idealised form for the male physique throughout history seems to be one of more athletic proportions. Male forms seem to conform to the persona of warriors or hunters.'
Mr Mirza Malik, associate editor of Men's Health magazine, said: 'In the 1980s and 1990s, the trend was to have bigger muscles. It was more about form and how the body looked. Today, the male body is more about function with emphasis on fitness and performance.'
Indeed, when seen positively, current body shape ideals can encourage a more active, healthy lifestyle.
Dr Andrew Khoo, a specialist plastic surgeon at Aesthetic & Reconstructive Centre, said: 'The trend towards trimmer and fitter bodies is very much due to us paying much more attention to our health.
'Controlling our diet, intake of nutrients and maintaining an exercise programme has become second nature for many people.'
Professional fighter and personal trainer Kim Khan Zaki, 26, is one such example.
Mr Kim's weight dropped from 93kg to 75kg after he picked up Thai boxing when he was 17.
He said: 'I used to be a fat kid, so any body shape that was not round was okay with me.
'I could have gone for bulky muscles or lose weight and be lean. A big, bulky person is not my idea of an athlete. To me, a fit person is a lean, mean machine.'
Thin-spiration trend a worry
Images in the media can inspire young women, particularly, to attain the touted ideal figure. JUNE CHEONG reports
Seeing celebrities like Blake Lively and Jolin Tsai on television and magazine covers may give young women 'thin-spiration' but it is causing some psychologists anxiety.
Dr Maryanne Fisher, an assistant professor at the department of psychology at St Mary's University in Canada, said: 'In many cultures, we're supposed to try to be the best that we can be.
'We want to be the best and most beautiful but when we can't meet those expectations, we have to cope. A focus on one ideal, like being extremely thin, can have negative consequences.'
These include the development of eating disorders and body image distortions.
Ms Evelyn Boon, a senior principal psychologist at the department of psychiatry at Singapore General Hospital, said: 'Constant dissatisfaction can lead to a negative body image, low self-esteem and self-confidence, unhappiness and even clinical depression and eating disorders.'
The risk of such a downward spiral occurs when a person is unable to reconcile himself and his perceptions of his body with what he perceives as ideal.
Ms Constance Png, a clinical psychologist at Changi General Hospital, said a person can become 'negative' if he wants to look a certain way and surrounds himself with ideal-figure images, but cannot attain this goal.
'Having an ideal figure may be the only way such a person can gain self-worth,' she said.
Young women between the ages of 17 and 25 are most susceptible to body image issues. Gay men and people in image or weight-conscious industries like athletes and dancers are also susceptible, Ms Png said.
Body image issues is a key symptom in conditions like anorexia - a psychological disorder characterised by an obsession with being thin and losing weight by limiting food. This is also so with body dysmorphic disorder - a chronic mental illness in which one frets about a 'flaw', usually imagined or which is only a minor physical defect.
Such a person will spend a lot of time and energy grooming or modifying the defect or the area around it, or will keep seeking reassurance from others.
While most people will not develop body image issues merely by looking at idealised figures, they are certainly aware of what can be done these days to achieve such forms.
Plastic surgeons Mind Your Body spoke to say the two most popular procedures are liposuction for body contouring and breast augmentation.
Dr Fisher added that another danger, again from the media's influence, may be the entrenchment of Western standards of beauty.
In a 1999 study of Fijian female adolescents, researchers found that the introduction of television had led to more girls dieting because they thought they were too big or fat. They induced vomiting to control their weight or developed eating disorders.
Dr Fisher said: 'We're conformists and if everyone else is trying to make herself look like a Gossip Girl, then she is going to go for surgery or get her hair done in a certain way.
'Because everyone watches the same TV shows now, especially Western ones, the same standards of beauty are trickling through.'